Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fixing NJ's pension crisis: Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Last week dozens of NJEA members rallied outside the state house to protest the State Supreme Court's ruling and Gov. Christie's refusal to fully fund the pension system. The rally/lobby day (there are two more next week) was part of NJEA's efforts to push the legislature to do something—anything—to stave off impending disaster when the fund runs dry in 12 years.

When the NJEA members drowned out the voice of Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, who was addressing a small group of Americans for Prosperity counter protesters, he responded with this:

"Do you want to yell at me or do you want to have a discussion? Because quite frankly, if we're just going to yell, we're not going to get anywhere."
“This is the type of ignorance and screaming that gets us nowhere. … You have to make a real plan that’s sustainable so, long term, we can take care of our dedicated workers, make sure that the pensions are there, make sure that in two or three or five years from now, it doesn’t fall apart. Screaming, ‘just make the payment,’ doesn’t get me $2 billion.”
(emphasis mine)
Look, I get it, no one wants an angry mob screaming and yelling at them, and when people are pushed, they kinda tend to push back. I'm not attacking Asm. O'Scanlon. I have never met him, nor do I have extensive knowledge of his voting record and/or history with public employee unions. From his Twitter posts (more below), he seems like a reasonable guy who is willing to communicate with constituents in an open forum. His altercation with NJEA members is but a snapshot in the larger pension crisis picture. 

That said, we are not ignorant. Frustrated? Yes. Angry? You betcha! But we are not ignorant. We know full well what's going on right now and we're not taking it sitting down. There was a "real", "sustainable", "long-term plan" signed into law with bipartisan support that was supposed to fix all this. As the Star Ledger reported last week,
Christie called [it] 'a model for America' that would save taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years. 
Except when it didn't. Ooops. One minor detail was overlooked: where was that money going to come from? Not from corporations. They've gotten huge tax breaks. Not from the super wealthy. Ditto on those breaks. Not from investments in infrastructure and job creation. Christie put the kibosh on those post haste. Did anybody in Gov. Christie's world ever have a real, legitimate plan to generate that kind of additional revenue? Me thinks not.

It's really hard for the 800,000 people in the pension system to stay calm right now when, for the past 20 years the legislature did nothing as one governor after another raided the fund. Then Candidate Christie came along and said this:

... then, Gov. Christie did this:

The symbolic 'f-you' is to all state workers, but NJEA members occupy a special place in his heart

Then, he did this (you can jump to the numbers below the video):

  • $5.4 billion in corporate subsidies 
  • $24 million wasted on Sen. Cory Booker's special election
  • $6.5 million for Gov. Christie's legal fees for Bridgegate
  • $279 million wasted on the cancellation of the Arc Tunnel project
  • $150 million in no-bid, over-priced contracts for Ash Britt Sandy cleanup
  • $25 million wasted on post-Sandy Jersey Shore tourism ads featuring Gov. Christie and his family during his re-election year
  • $8.9 billion settlement with Exxon thrown away in favor of a more corporate-friendly settlement of $225 million
  • $1 million for Gov. Christie's security as he travels the country testing the presidential waters
  • $2.6 billion wasted in state lottery privatization
  • $18 million tab the state had to pick up after the Super Bowl left town
  • $441K wasted fighting OPRA requests that Christie eventually lost
  • $82 million subsidy for Philadelphia 76ers practice facility in Camden that yielded virtually no new jobs
  • $1.5 billion in pension management fees paid since 2010; $600 million in 2014 alone
  • $3.8 billion loss in pension gains due to the transfer of funds to 'alternative funds' run by politically connected Wall St. companies
That adds up to almost $21 billion wasted by one governor. 

Legislators love to say there's no money. Well, of course there's no money when your governor squanders it like this! Throw in 9 credit downgrades, 49th in job growth, and first in forclosures—all since Christie took officeand this state is a hot mess. But who cares about those details when you're up in New Hampshire touting your signature, bipartisan legislation?

With an unfunded liability of $40 billion, that $21 billion would have gone a long way toward getting the fund off life support. Combine Christie's complete lack of concern for almost 10% of the state's population with the fact that—a) too many Democratic legislators sold out public employees by cutting the pension deal, and b) GOP electeds don't have the guts to vote for veto overrides, even when a bill passes unanimously—and public employees have every right to be angry.

So, when Asm. O'Scanlon asks:
"Do you want to yell at me or do you want to have a discussion?"
I say, where were all the "discussions" about reviving this state's economy to generate the revenue to fund the pension? At this point, "discussion" sounds like another word for kicking the can down the road. We can discuss til the cows come home, but sooner or later action must be taken because hundreds of thousands of NJ citizens, many of whom have dedicated 25, 30, 40 years or more to the people of this state are staring down the business end of a rifle that's set to fire in 12 years and is aimed right at their survival. As for the rest of us who haven't retired yet, we don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of having any kind of meaningful retirement. Talk about a liability. What will the state do with hundreds of thousands of new people filing for public assistance?

So, what happens when, during discussion, someone isn't heard? They tend to get louder. And often times they keep getting louder...
until someone... 

That's where we are right now. The rank and file public employees who've dutifully followed the law and put over $10 billion into the pension fund over the past 20 years, and who just got screwed by the State Supreme Court are really, really mad. And when a bunch of them get together in one place and they're carrying signs and a bull horn, they are going to get very, very loud.

As I said earlier, to Asm. O'Scanlon's credit, he's not afraid to discuss the issue out in the open:

But, 'trying' will not fix this mess. Action and tough choices will. And by 'tough choices', I don't mean any more sacrifices by public employees. We've done more than our fair share, thank you very much. No, part of that action must come from ensuring that everyone in NJ pays their fair share. And that means corporations because, after all, they're people, too. 

As I always say to my students when they tell me they 'tried' to do something and couldn't:

Every Assembly seat is up for re-election this year. Every member of the Assembly says they want to fix the pension. The budget has to be passed by June 30th. Let's see which members of the State Legislature will walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.